Monday, November 24, 2014

Tiny Beautiful Things

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed

You know those books that stun you and make you marvel at the beauty of the writing? This is that kind of book. But it's not for the faint-hearted or for anyone who doesn't like salty language.

Acclaimed author Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild (link to my review), wrote an advice column called "Dear Sugar" for The Rumpus for a few years. When she began writing, she described herself as having the “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” Yes, that fits well. It's just as much raw, honest memoir as advice columns.

Letters to Dear Sugar range from people trying to decide whether to stay with their partners to others who don't know how to handle their partners' sexual desires. One woman wrote in to ask about whether she should try to have a child, while others expressed confusion about whether it was okay not to have a child.

In every case, Sugar responds in the most loving, kind way she your closest, most honest and compassionate friend. Honest is the key word here; sometimes it's tough love, such as the letter from a privileged young person complaining about her parents not being willing to pay off her college loans. On other occasions, Strayed shares candidly about her own sex life and relationships.

Here's another example: a man overheard his close friends talking about his relationship with a woman they didn't think was particularly good for him. Understandably, he felt betrayed and upset. Sugar responds empathetically, but then shares her own similar story and explains that his friends were not discussing his love life to be mean, but because they care about him.

Strayed is heartfelt, honest, and authentic in her responses. In one column, someone writes in with a simple but vague question: "WTF, WTF, WTF? I'm asking this question as it applies to everything every day." In response, Sugar shares her experience of her grandfather sexually abusing her. In so many of these columns, she guts herself to bear her soul.

Strayed made me cry many times, mostly when she shares memories of her dead mother...such as in her title essay, "Tiny Beautiful Things," when she offers advice to her 20-something self.

In one letter, a woman writes about her 6-month-old daughter with a brain tumor and how she questions God's can God exist if her baby is allowed to die? Even though Strayed is a professed atheist ("I don't even believe in God") and wonders who the hell she is to respond to the letter, she does respond in the most beautiful, graceful way imaginable. Here's an excerpt:
"What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah? Would you see the miracle in that?"
You can read Sugar's columns online on the Rumpus blog, as I've shared, but I encourage you to read it as a book. You can read them in bite-size chunks so you can savor them slowly. And as it's Thanksgiving week, I direct you to Dear Sugar's Thanksgiving column (not in the book), in which she shares 94 things to be grateful for, collected from her readers. I plan to read this post gradually and savor it throughout the week!

I will leave you with a few great quotes from Dear Sugar:
“It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep.
The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.” 
“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.” 
"You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”
“Forgiveness doesn't sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.” 
“But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first.” 
“We are all entitled to our opinions and religious beliefs, but we are not entitled to make shit up and then use the shit we made up to oppress other people.”
“I can’t tell you what to do. No one can. But as the mother of two children, I can tell you what most moms will: that mothering is absurdly hard and profoundly sweet. Like the best thing you ever did. Like if you think you want to have a baby, you probably should.
I say this in spite of the fact that children are giant endless suck machines. They don’t give a whit if you need to sleep or eat or pee or get your work done or go out to a party naked and oiled up in a homemade Alice B. Toklas mask. They take everything. They will bring you the furthest edge of your personality and abso-fucking-lutely to your knees.
They will also give you everything back. Not just all they take, but many of the things you lost before they came along as well.” 
 “The place of true healing is a fierce place. It's a giant place. it's a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light.” 
“One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.
Say thank you.” 
Loved this book. 

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